The breed goes back to the late seventeenth century, to the northwestern corner of North America and specifically into the huge area that covered what is now a part of the states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana. This was the territory inhabited by the Nez Percé American Indians, and it’s to their forward-thinking horsemanship and breeding practices the Appaloosa owes its success.
Although the Nez Percé developed this seen breed, the history of spotted horses is a long one, with images of spotted horses appearing in ancient European cave paintings from around 17,000 B.C.E. Spotted horses-in particular the Austrian Noriker and the Danish Knabstrup – were extremely popular in Europe and were in great demand from the nineteenth century to perform from the increasingly popular Riding Schools. Many of the hallowed Spanish horses, also, including the revered Andalusian, once exhibited spotted coat colorings.
Horses introduced into the Americas by the Spanish conquistadores carried the powerful spotted coat gene, which spread up into North America since the Spanish continued their explorations. The Shoshone tribe from southern Idaho became great horse dealers, and it was largely from the Shoshone that the Nez Percé, whose territory was farther north and west, acquired their stock of horses. The Nez Percé’s property, with its fertile plains and sheltered areas, was highly acceptable for raising horses, and the tribe quickly established a substantial breeding stock. Only the best horses were stored as stallions, whereas those of inferior quality were gelded. The tribe kept the best of its breeding stock and got rid of the weaker horses through trading with other tribes. The numbers of their horses rose rapidly, and the Nez Percé became a wealthy tribe according to their massive stock of horses. In the early 1800s, the American explorer Meriwether Lewis (1774-1809) explained the Nez Percé’s horses as”of an superb race; they’re elegantly formed, active, and durable.”
Color was an important consideration for the Nez Percé, not only for ornamentation and decorative purposes but also for camouflage. However, their main concern when breeding was to develop an all-around horse of excellent stamina, speed, and endurance, and one which was able to survive on sparse rations. Their horses became famous for these qualities and were as capable of pulling a plow since they had been of covering huge distances at speed with a rider. The most prized of the horses were used during warring campaigns and were swift, agile, and intelligent, and the most revered of them were the spotted ones.
The seen horses belonging to the Nez Percé were described as Palouse horses by white settlers, who took the title from the Palouse River that ran through the Nez Percé land. The name Appaloosa wasn’t given to the breed until 1938 with the creation of the Appaloosa Horse Club, established to preserve the breed. Some fifty years before this, but the plucky, spotted strain was all but wiped out during the Nez Percé War fought between the American Indians and the U.S. government in 1877. The Nez Percé managed to outwit and outrun the U.S. cavalry for over three months and around 1,300 miles (2,092 km) of treacherous terrain, solely due to the fortitude and endurance of the Appaloosa horses. The Nez Percé were undefeated in battle but eventually surrendered to stop further hardships to the people hoping to weather the frigid Montana winter. The conditions of the surrender stated that they be allowed to return to their lands in the spring with their horses, but instead they were sent to North Dakota and lots of their beloved and prized animals slaughtered. Some escaped, and others were rounded up by ranchers and sold or used.
Following this, a few of the horses which had survived were quickly dispersed at auction and obtained by a few private individuals and ranchers who recognized their own inborn qualities and began to breed them. In 1937, the magazine Western Horseman published a post on the Appaloosa written by Francis Haines, sparking public interest in the breed. The following year, Claude Thompson, a breeder of the spotted horses, joined with others and established the Appaloosa Horse Club to preserve and promote the horses. Just three years later, under the direction of George Hatley, the club had a phenomenal amount of more than 300,000 horses registered, making it the third-largest light-horse breed registry. During this regeneration of the Appaloosa there was some introduction of Arabian blood and considerable influence in the Quarter Horse, which can be seen in the muscular frame of the modern Appaloosa.
In 1994 the Nez Percé tribe based in Idaho began a breeding program to develop the Nez Percé horse. The aim of this program, which relies on breeding old Appaloosa stock with Akhal Teke stallions, is to create an elegant, tough, versatile, and agile horse that’s equal in its attributes to the horses of the Nez Percé. Some, though not all, of those horses exhibit the spotted coat pattern of their Appaloosa heritage, even though they generally stick to the sleeker, finer framework of the Akhal Teke. Today, Appaloosa is considered among the most beautiful horse breeds